Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Billion-Dollar Kiss

I want to recommend a book called Billion-Dollar Kiss: the Kiss that Saved DAWSON'S CREEK and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff. Besides being a memoir of Stepakoff's progress as a writer, the book is also a very good history of the regulatory and economic forces that have shaped American TV since the 1980's.

There's relatively little in the book that directly relates to animation. Stepakoff was involved with the scripts of Brother Bear and Tarzan at Disney, though coverage of these projects is brief. He does speak highly of the storyboard artists at Disney, though.

That is one of the strengths of the book. While it relates many questionable policies and decisions that the author encountered, the book is free of derogatory remarks about the people Stepakoff has worked with or observed. One would hope that would serve as a standard for future industry memoirs and (dare I say it) blogs.

The parallels with animation are present, though. When the FCC changed the regulations allowing broadcasters to own their own programming, rather than buy it from independent producers, the broadcasters went on a spending spree signing writers to exclusive development deals. The thinking was that writers were the ones to create hits, so the broadcasters wanted to monopolize the talents of the writers with the best resumes. The problem was that the competition drove up the cost of the contracts and the results didn't justify the expense, causing many writers to be dumped and the networks to have to move to cheaper programming like reality shows.

In animation, the situation is similar to the '90s boom where studios like Disney, DreamWorks and Warner Bros. fought to sign up art talent, driving the cost of that talent through the roof. The expectation was that Lion King-sized grosses would continue and when they didn't, the studios eventually downsized, leaving many artists out of work.

The competition for talent, and the resulting rise in costs, seems to make sense in the short term; a company can't afford to let its competitors corner the market on talent. However, the competition is ultimately self-destructive as the frenzy to hire is rarely balanced against realistic income expectations.

There is one amazing quote in the book from an internal memo written by Michael Eisner. I'm not quoting it to vilify Eisner but because I think it's a perfect expression of a certain kind of short-sighted business mentality.
"We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective."
The first irony is that at the time Eisner wrote this, he was the president and CEO of a company that had been built completely on making history, art and a statement (Steamboat Willie, Flowers and Trees, The Three Little Pigs, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Disneyland, etc.). The other irony is that if you eliminate making history, art or a statement, the only thing remaining is formula. The problem with formula -- any formula -- is that it's a recapitulation of something that's already been successful, which limits a company to imitation and eventually dooms the audience to boredom. When an audience gets bored, a company built on a formula is stuck with little salable product. Surely, it was pressure over the quality of Disney's product and the resulting decline in revenues that was responsible for Eisner's ouster, meaning that Eisner was a victim of his own business philosophy.

Unfortunately, that philosophy is all too common inside media conglomerates and while Stepakoff is somewhat optimistic about the future of television (perhaps because it's still where he earns his living), Michael Eisner's approach suggests to me that television's future is far from certain.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Creative Illustration To Be Reprinted

Thanks to an anonymous commenter in the previous posting here, I learned that Andrew Loomis's landmark art instruction book Creative Illustration is going to be reprinted this coming September in paperback. On, the price is an amazingly low $13.57. I'm curious to see if the reprint will include the colour pages, but even if the book is not complete (and at 300 pages I'm guessing that it is), this is a major bargain as well as a major event. If you draw or are interested in drawing, this is easily one of the best art instruction books ever published.

Update: Lars asked in the comments what it was about Loomis that made him so great. I find his art very appealing. In addition, he is excellent at communicating artistic principles through his diagrams, drawings and text.

Creative Illustration is broken into the following sections: Line, Tone, Color, Telling the Story, Creating Ideas, Fields of Illustration and Experiment and Study. Below are some pages from the book that I hope will give you a taste of Loomis's skill and approach.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Falling Behind With the Joneses

Will Finn has written two blog entrys (here and here) about what he sees as the deterioration in Chuck Jones' drawing ability towards the end of his life. What's below is a piece I wrote in March of 1995 for Apatoons, looking at the latter part of Jones' career as a director.

My favorite animated shorts director is Chuck Jones. I'm saying that up front, so what follows doesn't seem like Jones bashing.

I'm glad that Jones is getting the attention he deserves from the press and public and I'm glad for Jones that he's been able to stay active. However, there's something pitiful about Jones' planned projects, sequels to some of his best and most popular films like Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening.

It's now more than 30 years since Jones worked regularly on the Warner characters. In that time, he's become an independent producer, the vice president of ABC, directed one original feature, one compilation feature and numerous TV specials, done a comic strip, a children's book and entered the original animation art market. In his personal life, he has suffered the death of his first wife, remarried, and lost many of his collaborators and contemporaries in the animation business. He has persevered through skin cancer, a pacemaker, and hip and ankle replacements. This is a lot to have experienced. Is any of it reflected in his work? I don't believe it is.

This isn't to say that Jones is completely responsible for the gulf between his life and art. The animation business is frankly retarded in the area of artistic growth. But I always hoped that Jones, one of the most intellectual directors in animation, would find a way to keep his art vital. Instead, his art is now 30 years behind his life.

It's as if the Marx Brothers reassembled in 1960 to make Another Night at the Opera or Bob Hope today making Grandson of Paleface. How about Paul, George and Ringo re-uniting to record "I Want to Hold Your Other Hand?"

Some artists create themselves continuously. They change with the times and continue to say something meaningful. Duke Ellington, Charlie Chaplin, John Huston, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner are examples. The late work by these artists, while perhaps not their most popular, is often their most deeply felt.

By contrast, other artists create themselves only once, and when they enter decline they thrash around noisily, trying to recapture something they once did effortlessly. Preston Sturges and Frank Capra come to mind in this category.

Jones is also in this category and he resembles Capra in many ways. Both were dependent on key collaborators (Capra on writer Robert Riskin and cameraman Joe August; Jones on writer Mike Maltese and designer Maurice Noble). Without their collaborators, both directors usually failed to do their best work. Both fell back on earlier works at the end of their careers (Capra remaking some 1930's films in the '50's and '60's; Jones returning to the Warner characters) with the new works being inferior. Jones is now recycling his earlier work, and his sequel to Duck Dodgers does not bode well for whatever comes next.

Mike Barrier was there first (he always is) with his essay on Jones in Funnyworld #13. (Hey Mike, put that essay on your website!) He implied in the early '70's that Jones' career might end with a whimper. What do we have from Jones' last 30 years that can compare to his Warner work? The Dot and the Line, The Grinch and Riki Tiki Tavi are the only things that I would put in that category. Am I missing one or two? If so, the number is still agonizingly small.

I'm not implying that this is a failure on Jones' part. Creativity is mysterious, and the artist has to be in tune with the zeitgeist and the marketplace as well as himself. Preston Sturges and Frank Capra did their best but couldn't sustain their art. That does nothing to diminish their best films. No other American animation director has managed to succeed where Jones failed, but it looked to me like Jones had the best shot at deepening his work as he aged. His current path is a painful reminder of how little he's contributed in the last 30 years and that animation directors don't gain wisdom or expressiveness with age, they just peter out.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Thru the Mirror Part 2

While animation fans are still looking at Disney and other cartoons from the 1930's, they're not always aware of how the cartoons were influenced by what else was happening in the movies at the same time. Animators were going to the movies just like everybody else, and when it came time to create cartoons, they often referred back to films that they'd seen. Steamboat Willie is heavily influenced by Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr, both in terms of the setting and also the relationship between Buster/Mickey and the captain of the ship. In Thru the Mirror, the Disney artists were working from the two dominant strains of musicals in the mid-1930's.

After the initial flurry of musicals at the dawn of the talkie era (roughly 1927-1931), musicals fell out of favour. They were revived in two different ways later in the 1930's. At Warner Bros. in 1932, 42nd Street contained musical numbers created by Busby Berkeley. Berkeley wasn't interested in dance so much as he was interested in patterns of motion. He was more interested in moving people, props and the camera around on the screen than he was in presenting fancy footwork. He was also noted for his overhead camera shots. 42nd Street was so successful that Berkeley created the climactic musical numbers for a whole series of Warner musicals as the 1930s progressed.

The other branch of musical was dominated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starting in 1934 in Flying Down to Rio. Dance in their films was an expression of romantic feelings between the pair or else was played as a novelty. Astaire often danced without Rogers, instead working with props.

Thru the Mirror blends both branches of 1930's musicals, though it leans more heavily on Astaire than it does on Berkeley. Leonard Sebring's scenes (particularly shots 26 through 28) and Ugo D'Orsi's (shots 39 and 40) present masses of cards in patterns of movement in a Berkeley-like fashion. Shot 28 by Sebring is a typical Berkeley overhead shot.
Footlight Parade (1933)
Thru the Mirror (1936)
In Thru the Mirror, the Astaire influence is heavily felt in Dick Lundy's Mickey scenes. Mickey is surrounded by the accessories of Astaire's costume: the top hat, gloves and cane. Berkeley's dancers might be wearing anything, but Astaire was usually found in formal wear. In particular, there's a very strong influence from the title number in Top Hat (1935) in Mickey's dance animation. Mickey uses a matchstick as a cane in a similar way that Astaire handles his cane, smacking it on the ground for rhythmic effect. Mickey uses it to make the top hat he's dancing on rise and fall. Furthermore, the climax of the "Top Hat" number is Astaire using his cane as a gun, shooting the other dancers. In shot 22, Mickey shoots at the top hat with his cane in a similar way.
Top Hat (1935)
Thru the Mirror
You can see the complete Astaire number from Top Hat here if you're interested.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Animated Oscar Nominees

Nominees for Best Animated Feature

Perspeolis (Sony Pictures Classics) Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

Ratatouille (Walt Disney) Brad Bird
(Ratatouille also got a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.)

Surf's Up (Sony Pictures Releasing) Ash Brannon and Chris Buck

Nominees for Best Animated Short

I Met the Walrus
A Kids & Explosions Production
Josh Raskin

Madame Tutli-Putli (National Film Board of Canada)
A National Film Board of Canada Production
Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski

Même Les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven) (Premium Films)
A BUF Compagnie Production
Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse

My Love (Moya Lyubov) (Channel One Russia)
A Dago-Film Studio, Channel One Russia and Dentsu Tec Production
Alexander Petrov

Peter & the Wolf (BreakThru Films)
A BreakThru Films/Se-ma-for Studios Production
Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman

I have seen all of the feature nominations this year and I hope that Perspeolis wins. I have great admiration for Ratatouille, but Perspepolis points in a direction that I would like to see animated features follow. An Oscar win would certainly help that. Also, Perspepolis has yet to get a wide release, so an Oscar win would benefit the film economically in theatres as well as on DVD. The other two features are no longer in theatres and they've already made the majority of their DVD sales.

Some may argue that Persepolis could win for animated feature and Ratatouille would get the award for screenplay as compensation, but I highly doubt that an animated film will ever get the award for screenplay. However, it is a tribute to Ratatouille and Brad Bird that the script was worthy of a nomination.

I've seen three of the five shorts nominations. I won't name which ones because none strikes me as a truly great film. As a result, I don't have a rooting interest in this category. If people have comments about the nominations (and the shorts category in particular), I'd be happy to hear them.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Can This Problem Be Solved?

Amid Amidi at Cartoon Brew has an excellent essay talking about Tex Avery's last days. For me, the heart of the is piece is this quote:
"Granted, an artist always has the option of charting their own course as an independent, but the fact of the matter is that an industry which consistently fails to recognize the value of the people working within it is an unhealthy industry that cannot be expected to advance or prosper."
That is exactly the problem. The people running this industry are incapable of understanding the nature and scope of the talent they employ. The few who do are incapable of capitalizing on it in any way that hasn't already been done. That's why there are so many recognizable clichés in animation. Take a look at Paul Dini's animation feature template and try to figure out if you should laugh or cry.

Every studio I have ever worked in (or walked through) has had more talent at the desks than it delivered on the screen. Every artist in the business recognizes this. How many can say that they are doing the best work they are capable of, even accepting the confines of their current deadlines?

In 1978, former comic book artist Bernie Krigstein said the following:
"I think what has happened to comics is a kind of diagram of what must happen to artists and creative people in a society where things have to be produced that cost a lot of money, and that need a lot of machinery to produce them, and that need a very complicated distribution system. It's almost inevitable that the artist, who is the fountain, who is the original impulse for all this product, it's inevitable that he should become an employee, because of that almost irreconcilable conflict between the people who are putting money into it and producing the object and the individuals who are creating it. And because of the dominance of the economic power, the artist has to be a vassal, just an instrument. Now frequently an artist is able to get through all the interstices and the unfilled cracks in the system, and then their work... will create a sensation. But as soon as it becomes part of the distribution system, as soon as the wheels start locking together and everything works smoothly from the production and distribution point of view, then the [replacement artists who can produce the work the way the system wants it done] become important. Because they can manufacture the products, they can manufacture what's needed. So every now and then a great system, like Hollywood, will permit an individual, a brilliant creative person, to inject a little lifeblood into it, and then, all too often, that person is crushed... whether he's aware of it or not. The only way to confront this kind of situation is for individuals to be permitted to produce their own stuff. And Hollywood, for example, allowed individuals to work, and there was a little renaissance of movies. The European studios, when they had small budget pictures, because the total control was in the hands of individuals, were able to produce good things. But as soon as this thing reaches a wide market, as soon as it becomes a marketable commodity, the creative person is no longer needed. He doesn't fulfill any important function in this great engine. This is my pessimistic view of the situation of the artist in our society, and I don't know how that problem can be solved."
(Paul Dini link via The Beat. Krigstein quote via Steven Grant.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Animator As Actor

In 1979, as part of the Los Angeles International Film Exposition, there was a program called The Animator as Actor, coordinated by Steven Paul Leiva with assistance from Mark Kausler. What follows are Leiva's published introductory comments.
"The Animator as Actor -- it's a simple concept, a statement complete enough to require no explanations beyond its own words. But somewhere this simple concept has been lost, or forgotten, or possibly never even considered by the public, and, more importantly, by the press which gives the public much of the information upon which it forms impressions. When the general press runs an article on animation, it is almost inevitable that the main point made, the "news" imparted, will be that there were, "Over so many odd thousands of drawings made to complete this film." Then everybody goes "Oooh!" and "Ahh!" and shake their heads in wonder as if they were being told how many hairs there are on a centipede's leg. The impression is made that an animator is only and just an individual who does a tremendous -- possibly a tremendously silly -- amount of drawings that are somehow strung together to make a "cartoon." Animators are seen almost as manual laborers -- ditch diggers with pencils -- with brows covered with sticky sweat instead of (as it actually is) the furls of creative concentration. This, of course, is all wrong. For as Chuck Jones has said, "Animators do not draw drawings, they define characters."

"Drawings for animators are simply the instrument through which they act, emote, mime, dance, and create characters as real as any devised by nature. Their successive drawings are their instrument in no less a way than a "live" actor's body, a singer's voice, or a pianist's piano are their instruments. But no one ever seems concerned over how many individual moves an actor makes to complete a scene, how many notes a singer hits to complete a song, or how many keys Horowitz strikes during his playing of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto. The concern is over how well they acted, sang, or played; how they -- as artists -- interpreted the scene, song, or composition. It should be the same for animators. For it is not really the drawings that matter, or how many there are, but, rather, what matters is how well the animator succeeds through successive drawings in breathing life into the characters his lines define. The animator plays drawings, utilizing "movement scales" rather than musical scales to realize a desired effect. The animator mimes action, but he does it on paper, instead of with his body.

"Exactly how the animator does this cannot really be explained. But neither can it be explained exactly how Horowitz so brilliantly interprets Rachmaninoff. You can't just say, "Well, he hit all the right keys at the right times." It is something more wonderfully mysterious than that, something more interior. And so is animation. You cannot just report the thousands of drawings it takes, and feel that you've explained it. You have to try for a deeper understanding.

"As you view the classic character animation in this program, realize that what you are seeing are not drawings that move and act, but rather, movement and acting that is drawn."
For the record, the films screened were Mighty Mouse Meets the Jekyll and Hyde Cat (Terrytoons, 1944), The Natural Thing To Do (Fleischer, 1939), Hello, How Am I (Fleischer 1939), Little Rural Riding Hood (MGM, 1949), Mouse in Manhattan (MGM, 1945), Pest in the House (Warner Bros, 1947), A Bear For Punishment (Warner Bros, 1951), Ragtime Bear (UPA, 1950), The Country Cousin (Disney, 1936), and The Pointer (Disney, 1939). The program also included a panel moderated by Leiva with guests Frank Thomas, Chuck Jones and Richard Williams.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Conflict and Tension

Having just seen Surf's Up, I was struck by the nature of conflict in the film compared to Ratatouille. Both films have animals who are obsessed with something and that obsession brings them into conflict with those around them. While I enjoyed Surf's Up, the nature of the conflict in that film is much less compelling than in Ratatouille and I think that is one reason for the film's relative failure at the box office. To date, Ratatouille has earned $206 million domestically while Surf's Up has earned under $59 million. Surf's Up also did significantly poorer than Sony's first cgi feature Open Season, which grossed $85 million.

The key issue is how much danger the character's objective creates. In Ratatouille, Remy's urge to cook great meals puts him in mortal danger from humans. The woman who owns the country cottage uses a gun against the rats and Linguini is charged with drowning Remy when he is caught in the kitchen. Furthermore, Remy's desire to cook brings him into conflict with is own family. His father refuses to believe that humans will ever accept rats and it causes a rift between them.

In Surf's Up, Cody's jeopardy is at a much lower level. His desire to surf may annoy his mother and brother, but there is no threat to any of them or their relationship as a result. His desire to win the surfing competition puts him in danger with regard to the ocean, but poses no threat to the wider community.

In Ratatouille, we learn that Remy is a genius cook, but in Surf's Up, we learn that Cody has an unrealistic view of his abilities, so while we root for Remy to overcome obstacles, we know that Cody has to fail before he can succeed. This reduces the tension as the initial failure is inevitable.

The genius of Ratatouille is that the basic situation -- a rat who wants to prepare human food -- immediately puts Remy in conflict with everybody around him. For Remy to succeed, he literally has to change the world, changing the rat perspective on people and the human perspective on rats. The weakness of Surf's Up is that for Cody to succeed, he only has to change himself. The external conflicts he faces are mild and the stakes are low.

Ratatouille relates everything in the film to the central conflict. The question of Linguini's parentage and the ownership of the restaurant don't concern Remy directly but still have an impact on Remy's objective. The business in Surf's Up with Chicken Joe and the aboriginal penguins is a comedic detour that produces laughs but doesn't contribute to the conflict.

Surf's Up is worth watching. Tom Sito and Keith Lango both have good things to say about it. Lango points out the high quality of the acting and I agree. While it's probably wrong to use the word "naturalistic" with regard to surfing penguins, the truth is that the acting is believable and subtle. It doesn't call attention to itself, yet it's as expressive as the voice work, which is of a high quality.

However, dramatic conflict is the mainspring that powers a movie and the danger is that low-key conflict results in a lack of audience enthusiasm.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Hanna and Barbera

There's a discussion going on about Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, probably prompted by the release of Jerry Beck's book, The Hanna Barbera Treasury. (Mike Barrier talks about them here and here; Thad K talks about them here.) For baby boomers, there's a strong nostalgia for Hanna-Barbera's early work such as Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Top Cat. Hanna and Barbera are undeniably important to TV animation from a historical standpoint as they were the first to crack prime time with an animated series and their studio was able to work with TV budgets and schedules while creating successful shows.

Furthermore, many boomers in the animation industry had direct contact with Hanna and Barbera and have pleasant memories of them as individuals. By all accounts, Joe Barbera was an expert salesman, so his ability to charm people should come as no surprise.

As theatrical animation collapsed in the 1950s and '60s, Hanna-Barbera was there to offer employment to animation artists who suddenly found themselves jobless. While no one claimed that TV work was the same quality as theatrical shorts, it did allow many animation veterans to close out their careers doing work that they were familiar with. They were spared the upset of re-inventing themselves in middle age or later.

Those are the good things that can be said for Hanna-Barbera. There are, however, many bad things that can be said about them. In some ways, it's amazing that animation managed to survive them.

There is no question that TV budgets and schedules were and are brutal for the creation of animation. Hanna-Barbera did nothing to fight this. That is their single biggest failing. Rather than attempt to reform or beat a system that was clearly stacked against the production of good work, Hanna-Barbera embraced that system and milked it for their own personal gain. They expanded the number of shows they produced and with each expansion, the quality of the product suffered. They opened studios overseas in order to take advantage of cheaper labour. The savings went into their pockets, not onto the screen. After their initial decade, when they had the opportunity to work in prime time or in features where budgets were better, the projects were only marginally better than the low-budget work they turned out for Saturday mornings. The thinking and procedures behind their Saturday morning shows infected the entire company. In their hands, the art of animation (and here I'm talking about the entire process from writing to post-production), was degraded and debased without apology.

Some might argue that Hanna-Barbera did not have the leverage to change the way the TV business dealt with animation. I disagree and my evidence is Walt Disney and the movie business. In the early 1930s, Disney was a small company that was not affiliated with a major studio. Theatrical shorts were not all that lucrative, which is why live action comedians in the 1920s like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon, worked hard to graduate to feature films. Walt Disney re-invested his profits, including those from merchandising, into improving the quality of his cartoons. By raising his standards, he forced other animation studios to raise theirs in order to compete.

Hanna and Barbera were no worse off than Disney at the time they entered TV. If anything, they were in a better position having won multiple Oscars for the Tom and Jerry series. They entered TV with a greater reputation and more experience than Walt Disney had in the early 1930s. As Disney expanded his company in that decade, the quality of the studio's work went up. As Hanna-Barbera expanded in the 1960s and beyond, their quality went down. Like Disney, they had merchandising revenue coming in from early on, but that money was never redirected to the cartoons. Where Disney increased his budgets with the hope that quality would lead to increased revenues, Hanna-Barbera never increased theirs. Walt Disney exceeded the expectations of his distributors and his audience. Hanna and Barbera were satisfied with meeting their minimum requirements, and often failed to do that.

Regardless of what you think of Disney's films, there is no question that Walt Disney enriched the animation industry by raising standards for the entire field. Hanna and Barbera impoverished animation by strip mining it, taking all the wealth for themselves and leaving behind an industrial disaster. There is no question that the animation industry suffered a major blow with the death of theatrical shorts and the rise of television. It took the industry more than 25 years to recover from that blow. Hanna and Barbera had no part in that recovery and if anything, they probably delayed it.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Various Linkages

The first issue of Dean Yeagle's comic book version of Roald Dahl's Gremlins, pictured at left, will hit the comic shops on March 5.

In this Variety article, Brad Bird talks about writing animation and live action as well as naming some of his storytelling heroes.

In the January issue of Flip, Steve Moore editorializes about the current state of the industry:
"Since the animation boom of the 1990's, an animation industry culture has developed that permeates mainstream animation in the world today. The artists making the films all know each other, move in the same social circles, know the same films, music, and pop culture trivia. The result has been a cross pollination of ideas, where artists of today plagiarize each others' plagiarization of the past. The result is, the audience gets a third hand experience. The animated character are even less genuine, less alive. The characters in one film move and speak and behave like characters in the other films. They express humor, love, anger, and angst all the same way. The indusrty-at-large has become homogenized. Creatively in-bred."
The same page has some letters from people who studied under Eric Larsen at Disney, including this quote from Larsen: "Animate in your head first, then draw it next." Those letters are in response to an earlier article by Dan Jeup about his experiences learning from Larsen.

Animated News has the release dates for seven animated features coming in 2008.

Hans Perk has completed posting the animation drafts for Disney's Alice in Wonderland.

Musician David Byrne talks about different business models evolving in his industry. While music and animation are very different businesses, it's always encouraging to hear that there are ways around corporate ownership and control of creative work.

Along the same lines, Andrew O'Hehir of Salon interviews independent film maker John Sayles about his latest project Honeydripper.
"You know, it would be great to just be an artist and sit back and make these little creations and have somebody else figure out how to get people to see them. But you're probably not going to get to do that. You're probably going to have to be a marketer, a showman, whatever. It's part of the job."

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

My Dog Tulip

One of the interesting trends of recent years is creation of animated features with small crews. Bill Plympton is one example with films like Hair High and Phil Nibbelink released Romeo & Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss last year.

Paul and Sandra Fierlinger are at work on a feature adapting J.R. Ackerley's novel My Dog Tulip, scheduled to be completed in mid-2008. Voice actors include Christopher Plummer and Lynn Redgrave.

The Fierlingers have created a large number of projects that have aired on PBS, with work for Sesame Street (Teeny Little Super Guy) as well as films aimed at adults including Paul's autobiographical films Drawn from Memory and Still Life with Animated Dogs. The Fierlingers are two of the relatively few who use animation for documentary purposes. In addition to the autobiographical films already mentioned, they've animated documentaries about alcoholism (...And Then I'll Stop) and loneliness (A Room Nearby).

You can read about their latest project here. I've had some trouble getting the animated clips to complete using two different web browsers, but you should have no trouble with the documentary clips or with looking at the stills and reading the biographical material.

No one expects this film to be a summer blockbuster. However, I've heard rumours that the budget is $3 million, so it doesn't need to be in order to make a profit. Plus the Fierlingers have the luxury of making the film at home without the overhead of a large crew. I hope that the film is successful as I think there's a need for animated features that are aimed at adult audiences and that aren't filled with explosions and special effects. Based on the Fierlingers' previous work, which is consistently subtle and intelligent, I look forward to seeing My Dog Tulip.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Jim Tyer

Mags Tyer
Uploaded by thadk

The above compilation, done by Thad K, is a collection of Jim Tyer animation done for Terrytoons. Besides Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle, there are clips from the Terry Bears, Little Roquefort, Gandy Goose and Sourpuss, and one-shot cartoons.

In the past, I've compared Tyer to Curly Howard of The Three Stooges, but the more I see of Tyer's work, the more I think that I underestimated him. Ed Wynn said (as Chuck Jones quoted him) that a comedian isn't someone who opens a funny door, he's someone who opens a door funny. That's Tyer. The gags in this compilation are nothing special; their humour comes from how they are performed.

I'll admit to being something of an animation snob. My pet peeve is that animation sticks too much to surfaces and doesn't grapple enough with strong emotions and the realities of human existence. However, I love Tyer. His work makes me laugh out loud in ways that the work of more conventional animators does not. He's from the tradition of coarseness that Will Finn writes about here and here.

Most of all, he reminds us that it's possible to animate funny. There's a Harpo Marx innocence and exuberance in Tyer's work; you can tell how much fun he's having while animating a scene. He breaks just about all the rules of animating: he draws off model, his characters lack structure, his volumes are inconsistent, and his work lacks a feeling of weight and momentum. But his rule-breaking is not the result of ignorance or lack of skill. Everything he does provokes laughter, even when the material is old and tired. Jim Tyer was a gifted, natural comedian. Compare the compilation above to anything currently on TV. If TV animation has any motion as funny as Tyer, somebody please tell me about it. I could use the laughs.

I've recently begun to wonder if Bob Clampett and Rod Scribner weren't an influence on Tyer. Their wildest work was in the early to mid 1940s when Tyer was still at Famous Studios. It was at Famous that Tyer's animation style began to emerge and by all accounts, he was fired for not sticking to a more conservative approach. Once Clampett left Warners, Scribner's work was never the same as he never found a director as sympathetic as Clampett. Tyer never found a director as sympathetic, but he did find several who were apathetic. At Terry, Tyer was left alone to pursue his own approach. While his work is not as controlled or as structural as Scribner's, I wonder if Tyer didn't take Scribner's work as an inspiration and a challenge.

Kudos to Thad for editing the compilation. It was a nice way to start 2008 and here's hoping it's an indication of how the rest of the year will play out. I wish everyone reading this a happy, healthy and productive new year.